Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
It was Labor Day weekend, 1986 when Trio’s restaurant opened as Trio’s Good Food to Go.
Four people (couple Capi Peck and Brent Peterson constituted one part of the triumvirate, along with Roxanne Dawson and Catherine Martin) with limited restaurant experience and a smidge of catering modeled their restaurant on a Baton Rouge deli. It was to sell food to go, hold cooking classes, stock cookbooks and kitchen gear.
Things have changed dramatically. Peck and Peterson bought out the other two partners in 1995. Trio’s flexibility accounts as much as anything for its relatively ripe old age in a tough business. Pavilion in the Park, as now, was the setting, but where a sleek bar now sits, there once was a working kitchen and refrigerator cases of deli salads, cheese and pate. An expansion into neighboring space produced a fancy party room for private events.
The kitchen gadgets and cookbooks are gone. Paper plates have been replaced by china. Trio’s is still happy to package its dinners to take home, but far more people lunch or dine in the casually dressy dining room (shorts OK) or on the popular patio. The choices range from Southern comfort food of the sort sold by Capi Peck’s grandfather, Sam Peck, at his legendary Little Rock hotel to the latest in fusion cuisine, with choice ingredients from all over the world.
“I don’t think there’s another restaurant in the world that ever sold bing cherry Jell-O mold and sea asparagus on the same day,” says Peck, who’s always been the leader in menu planning but who’s also now back at the stove as head chef.
I’m not much of a Jell-O fan, but I make an exception for Trio’s molded salad, a fine accompaniment to classic tearoom fare, a big scoop of chicken salad and banana bread. This and the enduring Peck Special Salad -– chicken, bacon, almonds and Romaine and left lettuce with slightly sweet vinaigrette -– are Peck heritage cooking. They compete as franchise dishes with several Trio’s has perfected on its own, including creamy chicken or shrimp enchiladas and spicy voodoo pasta.
You’ll never get bored at Trio’s thanks to changing specials at lunch and dinner, in every section of the menu from appetizers (there are always a couple of great soups) to entrees and desserts, drawn from 50 or so possible recipes.
Trio’s has a knack for menu prose. To wit: “Fresh mahi mahi encrusted with crushed coriander seeds, pan seared and served over herbed Arkansas basmati rice with Asian stir-fry vegetables splashed with a ginger soy sauce spiked with lime, jalapeño pepper, garlic and cilantro.” The other night, we wanted everything listed — from lamb salad, to an interior Mexican chicken dish spiced with achiote, to the mahi mahi, to halibut served Greek style, to scallops with pasta to a chunk of beef tenderloin with chimichurri sauce.
Peck writes the menu and shops with the market and season in mind. Japanese eggplant was the base for eggplant gratin with saffron custard the other day, one of the choice side dishes that the chef emphasizes. I often choose a main dish based on the sides, which include interesting grains and other surprise ingredients. There are no baked potatoes in foil in Trio’s, but you might get gouda-enriched mashed potatoes, a fresh corn salad or sauteed spinach, to name a few.
Peck calls Trio’s a global restaurant with a Southern edge and that’s as good as any description I can think of. Custom sandwiches still evoke the upscale deli days and there’s more than a little tearoom in the chicken salad and the seasonal smash dessert, strawberry shortcake. But no tea room puts such an emphasis on fresh fish and few restaurants handle it so well (alas, we had some beautiful, but overcooked, scallops last time out).
The roster of ingredients in the dishes can approach, but rarely goes beyond, that line at which creative becomes cutesy. If, now and then, the sum of a dish’s rare herbs, vegetables and protein isn’t greater than the parts, well, that’s the price of experimentation.
We’d give a generous multiplier to our appetizer of crispy rounds of fried green tomato, topped with sweet giant shrimp, romaine and rich remoulade. We liked panzanella, the Italian bread salad with olives, ricotta salata and tomatoes, if a bit salty. We appreciate that Trio’s always offers a vegetarian entree, though our recent corn crepes were a little blander than we expected, even stuffed with a melange of vegetables and cheese and served with ancho chile sauce.
You know at Trio’s that dessert always will rescue any earlier glitches. (Let me emphasize that when I say glitch, I’m quibbling. I expect a lot here and am rarely disappointed.) You can always count on finding banana delight, chocolate mousse cake and raspberry cream cheese pie on the dessert tray. There’s certain to be plenty of butter, sugar, cream cheese, cream and chocolate in the other choices, too. We have a particular weakness for Peter Pan pie — lots of chocolate and peanut butter — but it’s not a daily choice.
Trio’s evolution has included an upward march in its drink selections. The choices include craft beers, expensive and interesting wine and fancy martinis. But you can drink plain old iced tea at dinner to your heart’s content, a good way to walk out with a surprisingly reasonable tab for food of this quality, with entrees in the $16 to $26 range and appetizers roughly $4 to $8. Two people can have a drink, a couple of courses each and split a dessert for under $40 per person counting tax and tip. It’s fair for a restaurant that still tops my list of places to take out-of-town visitors.
Trio’s is family, with a kitchen and front room full of people with many years on staff. Service, notoriously hinky in early days, is much better today. When lapses occur, they do really seem sorry about it.
If I have any bone to pick with Trio’s, it’s a desire for a crustier bread. It turns out that old customers like a softer bread, currently supplied by Silvek’s, though a Boulevard baguette now is the base for the new “Casanova” sandwich, with sauteed eggplant and zucchini with goat cheese and onion.
Capi Peck’s enthusiasm about her work –- her sheer love of good food –- suggests that 20 years is only a beginning.
8201 Cantrell Road
You can’t go wrong with custom sandwiches, Peck Special Salad or chicken salad at lunch; the enchiladas and voodoo pasta at dinner, or the monumentally rich list of tempting desserts (banana delight is probably the people’s choice). But the fun is opening the menu to the latest round of specials.
11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to close (approximately 9 p.m. weekdays, 9:30 weekends) Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Moderate to expensive prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.